Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:14 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:14 pm, 13th May 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will speak to the amendments that stand in my name and that of the Leader of the Opposition. Food policy has been overlooked and sidelined in our politics for far too long. Empty shelves, crops underwater in flooded fields, food bank growth and the growing obesity crisis demand that it enjoys more of our focus in the next decade than it had in the last. I want to see a greater focus on the quality and resilience of the food that we eat and the quality of the air that we breathe. Our new focus on food is for life and not just for coronavirus.

I place on record my heartfelt thanks to all the food heroes—the hidden heroes—who have kept the nation fed throughout the coronavirus crisis. From the fishers and the farmers, the distributors and the drivers, the processers and the pickers, to the shelf stackers and the supermarket workers, these people are finally getting the recognition that they deserve as key workers. The pay, conditions, pensions, protections and political focus on them must now follow. In declaring my interest, may I remind the House that my little sister is one of those key workers, as a sheep farmer on her farm in Cornwall?

At the very heart of this debate today is a very simple question, which Simon Hoare mentioned in his opening remarks. What kind of country do we want to be—one where farm standards are a pawn in a trade deal with our values traded for market access, or a nation that says Britain is a force for good in the world and upholds our high standards for food grown locally and food imported alike? At a time of climate crisis, we must choose to rebuild a better, greener, more sustainable and fairer Britain than we had before.

The path ahead of us is uncertain, but we must learn the lessons of those who came before us. We must not trade away the values that make us British and make us proud to be British: high environmental standards in food production; decent pay for those who tend our fields—at least, they should be paid well; animal welfare standards that increase, not slide; and a determination that we will never, ever again be held hostage by our inability, by choice or natural cause, to feed ourselves.

The Agriculture Bill is not a trivial matter; nor is food production. The Bill will fundamentally change the system of farm support, so it deserves our attention. However, an Agriculture Bill without a focus on food is an odd beast. It almost entirely omits food, and therefore does not even begin to solve all the problems that the virus has both caused and revealed. I would wager that the Environment Secretary and the farming Minister did not have the whip hand in the timing of this Bill, and that it is down to Downing Street and its free marketeer agenda, seeking to see off a rebellion of Tory MPs rightly unhappy and uneasy about leaving the door open to imports of food produced to lower standards, that we are here today on a contentious piece of legislation in the middle of a national crisis.

The new clauses in the names of the Chairs of the two Select Committees—the hon. Members for North Dorset and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—and those in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and me all seek to do one very simple thing, which is to put Government promises into law. The promise from the Conservative manifesto says:

“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”

These words are meaningless unless they are backed up by law. The amendments today reflect a cross-party concern that the promises of high standards will not be kept unless they appear in black and white in the Bill. The right place to deal with farm standards is a Bill about farming. Indeed, the Leader of the House has just said from the Dispatch Box that he is about delivering on the manifesto and that this is essential. I agree on this point: those standards are essential, and they must be delivered on in law.

I suspect the Minister will shortly say that the subjects of these amendments would best be dealt with in the Trade Bill. I disagree with her on that and, unfortunately, so do her own Government. It seems the Government’s trade team are arguing that the Trade Bill is actually not for setting up trade architecture. They argue that it is a continuity Bill for rolling over existing agreements that Britain is a party to as part of the EU, so we will need another trade Bill that has not been published, written or designed yet to deal with matters such as democratic oversight of trade deals. There is zero chance, as the Minister knows, of such a Bill appearing or passing before the 31 December deadline, so we come to the necessity of this issue being dealt with in this Bill, where it can be discussed and implemented ahead of the 31 December deadline. It must not be parked or lost in the long grass of future Bills that have not yet appeared.

These amendments are being opposed, to my mind, simply because they would make it harder to have a trade deal with nations for which lower food and farm standards are the norm. The inescapable truth of Ministers refusing to put these sensible amendments into law is that allowing British farmers to be undercut by cheap imported food is part of the Government’s plan, and it should not be. Labour has tabled the amendments because we will not allow British farmers to go out of business because they are being undercut by cheap imports that would be illegal if they were grown or produced in the UK.

There is no urban-rural divide on high farm standards or on animal health and welfare, no divide when it comes to wanting high environmental standards preserved and no divide between feeders and eaters when it comes to food safety and food quality. This Bill is, by and large, a reasonable Bill.

DEFRA officials and Ministers have worked hard to get the detail right, but the political handcuffs placed on the Environment Secretary and his Ministers to tie them to oppose these reasonable, sensible, necessary and essential amendments betray the bigger political agenda at play here. Both the Environment Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Victoria Prentis, who has responsibility for farming, have good agricultural pedigree, and I am reassured that those with experience are at the helm of the Department, but if orders are coming from the Department for International Trade, they have my sympathy for being caught in the invidious place of choosing between what is right and what they are told to do.

The inevitable deregulatory pressure from poorer quality food will put pressure on Britain to slash our high standards so that farmers can compete; it risks a race to the bottom. That risks the animal husbandry and the environmental gains Ministers have committed themselves to. If Ministers are to protect only the standards for UK producers and do not set bars for foreign producers to meet in order to sell into the British markets, the path ahead for our farmers will be a dark one. We know that if only some of our farm standards are protected in legislation, in reality none of our standards are protected.

The Bill already includes a provision on food security reports on this challenge. The expected five-year frequency of publication does not match the annual barometer that it needs to meet. It is because the virus has shone a spotlight on the fragility of our food supply system that we are proposing that a food security report is published within six months of this Bill becoming law, focusing on the food supply problems highlighted by the virus: the fragility of supply, concerns over agricultural labour supply and the nutritional value of food parcels for those who are being shielded. Ensuring that food parcels are nutritionally balanced and culturally appropriate is necessary to ensure that those who are being shielded can receive the benefits of a good diet and not be compelled to head out to the shops to ensure that they can eat healthily, as that would defeat the purpose of this in the first place.

The nutrition of the nation is a national priority for Labour. That is why this amendment also stands in my name, and it does so proudly and distinct from party politics. However, the shortage of food and the rising incidences of food poverty scream out and demand our rational consideration of the causes of the crisis. I hope the Minister will adopt that amendment, as the Bill needs a greater focus on food, which the amendment would provide. The amendments on food standards are what our farmers are asking for, what the public expect and what was in the Conservative manifesto. I ask the Minister to back those amendments, recognising that Labour MPs, Conservative MPs, farmers and environmental groups all stand united here. I hope she will do the right thing and ensure that food poverty is addressed and that farm standards can be upheld proudly, ensuring that no farmer is undercut in future trade deals.